Settlement in Boston

When the Capuchin Franciscan Sean O’Malley was installed as archbishop of Boston in July, he seemed to have an impossible task before him. Close to 550 lawsuits had been filed against the archdiocese claiming sexual abuse by its priests. Cardinal Bernard Law’s attempts to settle the cases ended badly when an archdiocesan financial council vetoed the proposed settlement, saying it was too costly. Even more troubling was the antagonism and bad feeling that permeated relations between church leaders and victims of abuse.

That much of this has changed in just two months is remarkable. On September 9, after three days of intense talks, including a midnight meeting between the archbishop and victims’ lawyers, the two sides agreed to an unprecedented $85-million settlement. Under the terms of the agreement, each victim will receive between $80,000 and $300,000, depending on a mediator’s ruling. By all accounts, O’Malley’s involvement was crucial to the deal’s success.

The archbishop has been widely praised for his role in the settlement. Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer for the victims, applauded O’Malley for his honest and forthright handling of the negotiations. Even the New York Times seems downright smitten (not always a good sign) with the self-effacing Franciscan. The praise seems warranted. Since his installation, O’Malley has displayed a rare ability to win over would-be opponents. His obvious humility, especially his decision to live in a more modest residence than his predecessor did, disarms critics. The fact that he has earned the respect of so many in so short a time is a sign that the rift created by decades of church malfeasance may not be permanent. To be sure, the sting of last year’s revelations will not soon be forgotten. Still, there is hope for reconciliation, and that is something.

O’Malley was sent to Boston because he had a proven record of dealing with problems of abuse. The settlement in Boston is promising-and necessary. Justice requires that the archdiocese be held accountable. Without the threat of lawsuits the archdiocese would never have come clean about sexual abuse by priests. Still, Catholics cannot but be shaken by the amount of money involved, one-third or more of which will go to lawyers. The tort system is a crude instrument of justice at best. Placing a monetary value on suffering, while offering some compensation for the trauma, can also trivialize it. Nor is it clear that victims derive any lasting or restorative benefit from such payments. Real healing, if it is possible, will depend on more face-to-face forms of recognition and restitution, of the kind O’Malley has displayed. The archdiocese’s commitment to pay for the continued psychological counseling of victims is a very positive sign in this regard.

The church serves many in its ministry, especially the poor. If settlements like the one in Boston bankrupt the church, crippling its ability to serve the needy and witness to the gospel, the tragedy of sexual abuse may claim new victims. There have been enough already.

Published in the 2003-09-26 issue: 
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